Mistakes Were Made

GeeCee alerted me to this, and I thank her for her excellent journalistic nose.

Eurogamer ran a review on Rise of the Godslayer, but you won’t find it on their website. Well, not anymore. It’s been taken down, as Eurogamer’s editors are “not completely satisfied that it meets the standards expected of MMO reviews.”

This… this isn’t the first time Eurogamer has encountered controversy when reviewing an MMO. Almost exactly a year ago, Ed Zitron wrote an extremely critical review of Darkfall, in which he gave the game a two-out-of-ten. The low score was significant, but only as the proximate cause for an even larger strom, one that was inaugurated when the lead developer of Darkfall, Tasos Flambouras, called out Zitron on the game’s official forums. Using Darkfall‘s server logs, Flambouras argued that Zitron had only played Darkfall for roughly two hours, with most of that short time spent in the character creator. Eurogamer didn’t pull the review, and they stood by their writer… but they did commission a second review.

At the time, none of this really mattered to me. Darkfall didn’t interest me in the slightest. I was trying out WAR for the first time. The only reason I knew about this controversy was because I’m a regular reader of Massively, and I followed the news only as an everyday lover of schadenfreude would.

But Massively isn’t the only website I read for gaming news. In particular, there’s one other – Rock, Paper, Shotgun. RPS focuses solely on PC gaming, and among other fantastic articles, the writers post hilarious and poignant multiplayer “Let’s Play!” pieces.

The staff also has close ties with Eurogamer. And so it came to pass that one of RPS’ founders, Kieron Gillen, wrote Eurogamer’s re-review of Darkfall.

That re-review is the most memorable piece of game journalism I’ve ever read. It helps that its first sentence – “Of course, I haven’t played it enough.” – is one of those fantastic, Howard-Roark-laughed, Call-me-Ishmael-type openings. Gillen alternates between analysis of Darkfall and its flaws, and meditations on how an MMO review should be written. He concludes that MMO reviews, written in the style of conventional game reviews, are all but doomed to failure. Writers aren’t paid by the hour, but by the word count; it’s just not worth it to invest more time for the same amount of pay. And if a writer sticks with the game for sixty plus hours, there’s a good chance they’ve joined a self-selecting crowd that finds in the game something to enjoy. In Gillen’s analysis, there’s no right way to review an MMO, but there are plenty of wrong ones.

And so we return to the review of Rise of the Godslayer. It’s been taken down, but the comments betray some of the review’s more memorable lines. And I’m going to use said comments as evidence – is that fair? Maybe not. It’s clear that Eurogamer recognizes that the review was lacking in some way, and they’ve take steps to contain the situation. But, come on, guys – somewhere, multiple people thought the review as originally printed was a sufficiently rigorous piece of game journalism that it merited publication. Or maybe they didn’t – maybe the pressures of time and the market forced the powers-that-be to accept a deficient story. I don’t know. But it was published to the internet, and once something is on the internet…

The byline is currently “Eurogamer staff,” but the comments point to Quintin Smith as the original author. Which… is a surprise? “Quinns” isn’t a regular contributor to RPS, but he is a presence, a personality, on the website. In the two “Let’s Play!” pieces linked above, Quinns is a larger-than-life figure, boisterous and funny and likable and despicable, “the man you love to hate.”

And so, a gaming journalist I know and enjoy through RPS writes a review of an MMO expansion which is subsequently pulled because of quality control. Just what – going off of these second hand comments – went wrong?

There’s the question of how and when Rise of the Godslayer was reviewed. This was a ‘day zero’ review, released the day before RofG went live. Did Smith play in the closed beta, or the open beta that lasted for three days? As a game journalist, was he afforded special access? Just how much of a massive mutliplayer online game can you review in beta, open or closed? If you aren’t subscribed to an MMO and haven’t played since launch, can you really get the feel of what an expansion adds?

Then there was the tone of the article. Can it really be said that lines like “Behold the magical, mystical land of… China! They should have rolled with it and made Age of Conan: Conan vs. Communism.” are accurately engaging the source material? What does the People’s Republic of China actually have to do with an Asian-themed fantasy game, especially in light of the fact that the developers have said their main influences were drawn from classical Chinese and Korean culture?

Another excerpt, probably my favorite:

Age of Conan already had redundant abilities and a wealth of tactical options, so with the addition of dozens more perks and powers, character advancement can begin to feel a little sordid. Dropping into one of the level 80 characters Funcom kindly provided me with, I found myself having to study four racks of abilities and stances with at least a dozen more powers sat eagerly in menus, waiting to be given slots. But then once I did figure out what I was doing I found I could slouch through every fight with the same series of combos.

Like one of the commentators pointed out, no one in their right mind would say of Cataclysm: “Not having played WoW before, I was presented with 4 bars of something called ‘skills’ – it took a bit of getting used to, but in 10 minutes I figured how to play the game’s end-game content and it sucked. Furthermore, I found all the abilities at my disposal to be convoluted and unnecessary.”

At the root of it all is a general sense of ignorance of the game’s development cycle and what, as a full package, Age of Conan has to offer. The author advances statements about the game’s current condition that are, by all accounts, no longer correct. For instance, Smith appears to question the utility of adding another early-mid-level zone, saying “The lack of content that puts Conan players at risk of having to grind appears between levels 50 and 80, not 20 and 40.” He is apparently ignorant of Ymir’s Pass and Tarantia Commons, game zones added after launch to deal specifically with his complaint.

And at another point, Smith seems to cite RofG’s lack of a level cap increase as a dissappointed. “Khitai is big enough to render the fact that Rise of the Godslayer doesn’t include a level cap increase absolutely absurd. There are four huge, wide-open areas to explore, each as big as Gateway to Khitai, except with more dungeons. By Conan’s standards, there’s enough here to hypothetically nudge a player up to level 100, or perhaps even 110.” And at another point: “It’s through factions that you’ll acquire some of the epic loot that’s your only real goal in Khitan, since you’re not levelling up.” Why is the Alternate Advancement system not seen as a legitimate form of deepening the end game?

Gillen was correct in assessing the difficulties of reviewing an MMO. Unlike the majority of video games, MMOs aren’t static. The change an FPS undergoes when a new map pack purchased or a new patch releassed is glacially slow when compared to the speed with which MMOs are (should be?) patched and modified. And MMOs are also massive – it’s in their genre title, for gosh sake. Taken together, these two facts – the evolving nature of MMOs, and the breadth of their content – preclude the chance that MMOs can be treated like normal games. Maybe the best solution is getting the group of self-selecting game advocates to stick with their favorite MMOs. Because the fact is, the current system isn’t working – there won’t always be a Gillen to re-review the works of game journalism’s Zitrons and Smiths.

EDIT: I’ve since expanded on some of my ideas and retracted some of my claims, here.

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19 thoughts on “Mistakes Were Made

  1. I was about to go as far as to say “MMO reviews are completely pointless” in my post, but then I thought about it and decided that would be a little unfair. I’m suppose it’s not entirely impossible that I would never get anything useful out of a MMO review, but okay, let’s just say I think they’re MOSTLY pointless. Pretty much for the reasons Gillen noted.

    Eurogamer also has a tendency to be “edgy” because they think that’s cool. So that could explain the comments thrown in about communism (seriously, I’m still like, “WTF” about that). Well, regardless, Eurogamer still thinks it’s an “accurate and reasonable account”. I still wish they would give a good reason why they didn’t think it was up to standards though, and that there was some way to see the original review.

    Apparently a lot of those comments in the review are from AoC fans who were made aware of the article through the game forum. I wonder if the review would still have been taken down if so many fans didn’t come to the game’s defense. I’m in no way saying that the commenters have no idea what they are talking about, because they are correct in calling out those glaring mistakes in his review. But yes, simply judging by comments may be a little unfair, especially without the original article as a reference one can’t tell what’s taken out of context.

    • I would go that far. Game reviews in general are pretty tough to do, compared to non-interactive entertainments, but MMOs are especially tough. Not just because of the amount of time involed to do more than a cursory review of a game, but because of the impact of the player community, and the fact that developers are continually (hopefully) making improvements.

      BTW, if you want at least the first page of the original review you can find it in Google’s page cache. 🙂

      • I think for MMO reviews to work, MMOs need to be treated like television shows. Both MMOs and TV shows are experiences that occur over extended periods of time, while movies and ‘normal’ games can be considered shorter, discrete experiences.

  2. Anyone who says “OMG it needs more levels!” instead of seeing that horizontal advancement is a great thing is someone who opinion is to be ignored, because they are close minded dullards. Eurogamer is a trash review site; it always has been and it alway will. I bet they rile people up to generate traffic, they don’t deserve.

  3. Have they added more or different AA into the game? When I was last in the “AA” was not so much AA as what I would call SSB – selective skill boost. There were very few new abilities or opening of new ways to play the character (what I would think of as horizontal developmet).

    In any case, Eurogamer weathered the Darkfall thing okay, but I can’t see this as anything other than a full on black eye for them.

  4. Hi there. Got here through checking out various blogs and your name popped up on Kill Ten Rats. 🙂

    Just wanted to say that I like what you wrote, and I hope to read more in the future. *adds you to Feed and Blogroll*

    Take care. 🙂

    -Victor Stillwater

    PS: http://vetarnias.bravehost.com/euroconan.html is a repost of the review put up by someone. I don’t quite remember how I got the link though (BrokenToys.org, I think), but anyway… there you go.

    • Wow, thanks for linking that repost. Having read the whole thing, I don’t really know how I feel.

      And thanks for the link! I’ve linked back, yo!

  5. Having now actually read the review, I’m a little worried – but not surprised – that people are using a gag screenshot caption as ammunition against Quinns. Now *you’ve* read the review… are you sure you want to keep that in the piece, man?

    I also approve that Quinns doesn’t hide anything about his relationship with the game in the review. He says it’s from playing the Beta. He says he’s not a veteran player. It’s not as if he’s trying to pull wool over anyone’s eyes. I really don’t think Quinns did anything wrong here. All the information you need to accept or dismiss his opinion is right there in the piece.

    (Even stuff like “The 4 rows are complicated” is a good thing. It’s meant to add a cadveat to his opinion on the endgame content. *I am not a veteran player. I may be missing stuff here*.)

    You may ask “Why was Quinns reviewing this?”, of course… but that’s not Quinns’ problem, is it? He was given a job and he did it.

    KG

    • You’re absolutely correct.

      When I wrote this, I hadn’t read the whole piece. I also wasn’t aware of the fact that many of the “worst”/”most offensive” lines of the review were in the captions, which (I’ve heard) are written by other people.

      Having read the whole piece, Quinn’s review makes a lot more sense. I think the largest problem readers had with it – the largest problem I had, at least – was that it was from the perspective of an outsider. That doesn’t make his argument illegitimate, not at all, but it does make it different.

      I’ve been meaning to write a follow-up piece on this, and you’ve inspired me to do it sooner rather than later.

      And, uh, since I’m completely a fan of yours… thanks for posting!

    • Obviously this thread now should be dedicated to fanboyism (or fangirlism, I am not sexist) of Kieron Gillen. The man. The myth. The semi-known legend. A hero to us all, or us none if he gets eaten by that giant monster and can’t punch his way out like he did the first two times (I still believe Kieron used his tried and true method and the second time was played out to make everyone else at RPS feel less weak compared to the angry busy fists of one Mr. K. G.)

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  8. So you got linked on RPS! Good news for you. However, you’re reviewing a review based on nothing but the comments still left after the fact, without noting that Conan fans are hungry for a bloodletting of one (1) Quintin Smith.

    You complain that he didn’t take the time to completely review the game, and that some of his information is wrong. Well the review isn’t for you. It’s not for the fans that already play it. They’re going to keep playing no matter how many arbitrary numbers the game gets. Reviews are for people that might play the game, or might come back to it. And we don’t care that there’s five zones, not four. So the review is fair, just not for you.

    You just looked for an excuse to get angry. You also went and disregarded “Behold the magical, mystical land of… China! They should have rolled with it and made Age of Conan: Conan vs. Communism.” as a joke, because it suited your tone. It’s a joke. Not a good one, but a quick throwaway joke. Do not subvert it just because you want to attack the man. Well hey, you did get angry! I guess you win! What’s your next move?

    • And here I thought I’d given a reasoned response that asked readers to reflect on the limitations of the current game review paradigm when discussing MMOs!

      The review was released before the game was launched, based on limited high level play in beta; of the few specific facts given in the review, one was wrong; there were asinine jokes that really had not relation to the matter at hand.

      The first two of those statements are facts, the third a reasonable opinion. I wrote an article from that. As best as possible, I tried to stay away from ‘myopic vitriol.’ I’m disappointed that EG didn’t get someone with more AoC experience to play the game, but not much more than that.

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